Posted by theguardian.com. Interview by Elizabeth Day. Dec 29th, 2009
Rupert Friend already knows how this interview is going to be written. “You start off with a humorous anecdote about meeting me,” he says, as if reciting a shopping list. “Then you end on something that neatly refers back to the beginning. It’s so boring.” He sits back in his chair, a small smile on his face.
It seems fair to say that Friend, 28, has developed a fairly healthy contempt for journalists. He tells me that he refuses to read any newspapers because they are saturated with meaningless celebrity trivia and he seems to believe most of us who work for them are hopelessly ignorant. At one point, when talking about a film he recently shot in Georgia, the country that was last year invaded by Russia, he asks me if I am aware of the recent war. I nod my head. “Do you know or are you just nodding?” he asks crisply. I tell him that yes, I do know, given that I am a journalist and it is my job to have keep abreast of current affairs. “Well you’d be surprised,” he continues. “Some of them…“
Still, I don’t think he means to be rude. It is simply that Friend has more reason than most to be wary of the press, given that he has been dating an international superstar for the last four years. He met his girlfriend, Keira Knightley, while filming the 2005 adaptation of Pride & Prejudice (she was Elizabeth Bennet, he the dastardly Mr Wickham). As a couple, they are hounded by paparazzi everywhere they go and most of Friend’s past interviews have been overshadowed by their relationship. When I bring it up, he insists that he does not talk about it “because it’s private“, before leaning close to my tape recorder and bellowing: “She’s asked it now!”
Aside from these skirmishes, Friend proves to be engaging, thoughtful company. It must, admittedly, be galling to be pigeonholed as someone’s boyfriend when he has built up an impressive body of work in his own right. After training at the Webber Douglas Academy of Dramatic Arts in London, he made his film debut in 2004 alongside Johnny Depp in The Libertine as the gay lover of the 17th-century Earl of Rochester. In 2008, he put in a chilling performance as a Nazi prison guard in The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas. “I get more people asking for that picture to be signed than any other, it really worries me,” he says. “It’s a Nazi. You want that on your wall? Really?“
This year, critics praised his understated turn as Prince Albert in The Young Victoria and his performance in the title role of Stephen Frears’s Chéri as a disaffected bon vivant who falls in love with an older woman, played by Michelle Pfeiffer. From January, Friend will be appearing at London’s Garrick Theatre in Douglas Carter Beane’s satire, The Little Dog Laughed, as an American movie actor desperate to conceal his homosexuality.
“There’s this belief [in Hollywood] that if it’s a gay guy playing a gay guy, audiences won’t accept it because it’s a little bit too dangerous, it’s too close to the truth,” says Friend. “Whereas with a straight guy, everyone knows that at the end of the day, he shrugs it off and goes home to his wife and family.”
“Then the question arises, when you watch somebody and you know anything about their private life, does it influence your perception of the role? I think the less you know about someone, the better. I, as an audience member, slightly resent when things are in my head that I don’t want to be there… like knowing people’s marital status or how many children they have or their sexuality or whatever. I don’t want that. I want to be taken on a tour and submerged into another world which I believe in totally and I then believe the characters are who they say they are, rather than coming in saying, ‘There’s that guy I know everything about pretending to be that guy.'”
Much of the play pivots on the extent of the central character’s self-delusion. Does Friend ever deceive himself? “Yeah,” he deadpans. “I’m a terrible dancer… I think saying you’re bad at something is rather wonderful because then it doesn’t matter anymore.” He drifts off. “Milk. I hate milk and, again, for years I forced myself to like it because you’re supposed to have milk on your cereal, milk in your tea, it’s an English thing to have. It makes me gag and the liberation of saying, ‘No, I don’t think I like milk’ was like ‘Wow’.”
“I didn’t want to be an actor because you watch a film like Leon where he drinks a lot of milk and you think, ‘I’m not sure how I would do that if the director asked me to do it and I wouldn’t want to let him down.’ Maybe it would be coloured water or something.“
He is joking, though it can be hard to tell because he barely smiles, instead sitting across from me for the best part of an hour looking intense, occasionally munching pensively on tuna salad (“You can write about what I’m eating,” he says). His clothes are scruffy – black T-shirt, battered leather jacket – and give the impression of someone who does not like drawing attention to themselves. Does he dislike the idea of becoming too famous? “I don’t think you can decide how famous or not you become. I think you can decide how much of yourself you’re willing to make public.“
Friend, the son of a solicitor and an art historian, grew up in the small Oxfordshire village of Stonesfield and attended the comprehensive in nearby Woodstock. “I was bullied a lot… doing anything overly well was punished by the kids.” He didn’t tell his parents what was going on: “I was a stubborn little bastard and I sort of thought, in that quasi-poetic, dark room, early teenage way, that it would be a good thing to try and get through it. I came out not expecting anything of the world… whatever I turn my hand to, I will fight as hard as anything because I don’t care if I get knocked back. It doesn’t hurt. I’ve got thicker skin than you, so it’s fine.”
The sense of being an outsider has stuck. “However much you might like to say, ‘I’m such an individual and I’m such a trailblazer’, what you possibly really mean is, ‘I’m not allowed in the gang.‘” What gang is he not a part of now? “Um, the theatrical community. I’m perfectly happy not to be. If I’m in LA, it’s ‘Brits in Hollywood’. They’re all these little gangs and as soon as I get even an inkling that I might get invited to join them, I run away.”
After school, he applied for Webber Douglas without telling anyone (“I didn’t want to get written off“) and won a place. He was asked to audition for The Libertine before graduating. Although his parents both went to Oxford, university held little appeal: “I didn’t like the idea of doing one thing for three years.” Where does that restlessness come from? “I get bored quickly. Always have. Short attention span.” He has no permanent home and does not own a television or a radio, seeming to prefer the romanticised notion of a nomadic existence. “That routine thing is not comforting to me. It’s the opposite to that. I find it quite unsettling if I’m doing the same thing that I did yesterday.”
Is he difficult to be around? He nods his head. “Nightmare. But I hope at least not too boring. I mean, fucking tiring, probably very irritating, frustrating, but not too boring. That would be fine if that was my gravestone: tiring, frustrating, irritating but fun at times.“
He pauses, then backtracks. “No, not fun, I don’t like that word. Fun is like ‘nice’, isn’t it?” He struggles to come up with a new word. “Diverting? No, that’s rubbish.” In the end, Friend has to go back to rehearsals without completing the epitaph, but not before baldly telling me that he won’t be bothering to read this interview. Presumably he already knows that I am going to write a humorous last sentence that seamlessly links back into the introduction.